(Reuters) — One senior Obama
administration official called Vladimir Putin's actions in the Ukraine
"outrageous." A second described them as an "outlaw act." A third said
his brazen use of military force harked back to a past century.
"What we see here are distinctly 19th and 20th century decisions
made by President Putin," said the official who spoke on condition
of anonymity to a group of reporters. "But what he needs to
understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st
century world, an interdependent world."
James Jeffrey, a retired career U.S. diplomat, said that view of
Putin's mindset cripples the United States' response to the Russian
leader. The issue is not that Putin fails to grasp the promise of
western-style democratic capitalism. It is that he and other
American rivals flatly reject it.
"All of us that have been in the last four administrations have
drunk the Kool-Aid," Jeffrey said, referring to the belief that they
could talk Putin into seeing the western system as beneficial. "'If
they would just understand that it can be a win-win, if we can only
convince them' — Putin doesn't see it," Jeffrey said. "The Chinese
don't see it. And I think the Iranians don't see it."
Jeffrey and other experts called for short-term caution in the
Ukraine. Threatening military action or publicly baiting Putin would
likely prompt him to seize more of Ukraine by force.
But they said the seizure of Crimea represents the most significant
challenge to the system of international relations in place since
the end of the Cold War. Flouting multiple treaties, the United
Nations system and long-established international law, Russia has
set a dangerously low standard for military intervention.
"There have not been attacks on ethnic Russians," said Kathryn
Stoner, a Stanford University professor and leading expert on
Russia. "That's just a lie. There was no threat to the (Russian
naval) base in Crimea. That is just absurd."
She also argued that the scores of people who died in clashes in the
Ukrainian capital before the Russian intervention were Ukrainians,
But an unresolved international debate over a series of post-Cold
War interventions is threatening to cause sweeping instability. From
Europe to the Middle East to Asia, regional powers that might act
militarily are watching events in Ukraine.
In Putin's eyes, the United States may struggle to claim any moral
high ground. Some Russian and European commentators point out that
the United States intervened in Kosovo in 1999 and invaded Iraq in
2003 without United Nations approval. And Russian officials have
repeatedly said they regret not vetoing the U.N.-backed 2011 NATO
intervention in Libya.
Russian officials and some western commentators have portrayed all
of those interventions as western plots to weaken Russia or
destabilize countries in the Balkans and the Middle East.
American officials flatly reject those interpretations. They argue
that Russia and other authoritarian rulers are cynically
manipulating facts and spreading false conspiracy theories to
justify the use of military force to enhance their own power.
They point out that sweeping violence had erupted in Kosovo and
Libya, threatening large number of civilians. Both interventions
also came after months of diplomatic efforts and international
public debate. And even the much-criticized invasion of Iraq came
after a decade-long cat-and-mouse game between Saddam Hussein and
United Nations weapons inspectors, and a year-long effort by the
Bush administration to win UN support.
Whatever Russia's intervention represents, the immediate economic
leverage the United States has over Russia is limited, according to
experts. The most potent weapon Washington could use would be
sanctioning Russian banks, companies or individuals, similar to the
sanctions that have proven so damaging to Iran's economy.
When asked by reporters on Sunday whether such sanctions were under
consideration, senior Obama administration officials declined to
"We're not going to get into any more detail about what's being
considered," said one senior official who asked not to be named.
"You are absolutely right about the vulnerability of Russian banks.
We're looking at all of the options."
A difficulty with effective sanctions lies in Western Europe, where
many nations now depend on cheap Russian natural gas to fuel their
economies. Germany leads the group, with around 40 percent of its
natural gas coming from Russia.
Fiona Hill, a former National Intelligence Officer for Russia and
Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, credited Putin with
strengthening Russia economically since gaining power in 2000.
Though Russia still has economic challenges, Europe's dependence on
Russian gas supplies gives Russia a trump card that did not exist
during the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s, she said.
"In the years since Putin has come to power," she said, "he has
removed our leverage."
Putin has also increased the capabilities of the Russian military;
crushed or co-opted dissent; and gained iron control of Russia's
Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, Russian media have portrayed the
protests that overthrew the country's pro-Russian president as an
American-backed coup. Hill said recent public opinion polls show
that 60 percent of Russians approve of Putin's actions in the
Secure at home, Putin also fears little backlash from abroad. He
believes the United States and Europe will publicly condemn Russia
but implement few economic sanctions because Europe remains
dependent on Russian natural gas.
"The biggest blow would be the largest companies in Germany not
doing business" with Russia, Hill said. "That is what Putin banks
on: Russia is too big and important."
Stoner, the Stanford professor, said that Putin had outmaneuvered
the United States and Europe. Officials in Washington and Brussels
had failed to anticipate — or counter — Putin's methodical
re-assertion of Russian power.
"NATO and the US, in particular, but also Germany — we've all been
caught off-guard here in terms of anticipating this sort of
behavior," she said. "It's beyond what people would have expected."
Jeffrey, the former American diplomat, called for a renewed
long-term Western effort to increase leverage over Putin. He argued
that the economies of the United States and Europe — which are
roughly $30 trillion combined — dwarf Russia's $2.5 trillion
He said long-term steps would be accelerating the negotiation of a
trans-Atlantic free trade partnership and measures that would
increase American natural gas supplies to Europe. A short-term step
would be offering major economic aid to Ukraine's desperately
cash-strapped new government.
"We are tremendously more powerful than him," Jeffrey said. "We
ought to be able to bail out Ukraine. We ought to be able to make
Europe less energy dependent on Russia."
Jeffrey said the days and months ahead will be vital. If Putin faces
few long-term consequences for seizing Crimea, it will set a
precedent for China and other regional powers who may be considering
establishing 19th century-style spheres of influence of their own.
"The Chinese," Jeffrey said, "are in the same position."